That which falls is weak. That which lies on the ground is prey.
Several years ago I read a book called We Need to Talk About Kevin which was one of the most disturbing books I ever read. Written by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin was about a little boy who grows up and commits unspeakable acts. The author – through the eyes of a mother – explored themes we rarely talk about: not loving your children enough, preferring one child over another, loving a spouse more than a child, and nature versus nurture.
So, when I picked up The Dinner by Herman Koch and started reading, I realized I was again reading a book that touched on the same mostly unspoken topics. Mostly unspoken because parents won’t admit they don’t love their children enough, or that one child is preferred over another, or that a spouse is loved more than a child..and most controversal of all, that parenting or genetics (or a combination of both) may have created a bad child.
In The Dinner, two couples – Serge and Babette Lohman and Paul and Claire Lohman – are meeting for dinner at an expensive restaurant in Amsterdam. Serge and Paul are brothers and although they differ greatly in character and personality, they are both husbands, fathers, and part of the same family. Paul is the narrator of the story and from the first page, there is a sense of resentment and anger that Paul exudes for his brother, Serge who is the leader of the largest opposition party – a “shoo-in for prime minister” in the upcoming elections in Holland.
Serge and Babette are everything that Paul and Claire are not – physically, socially, politically, and economically. Through these differences, the author takes the opportunity to write about the less desirable characteristics of Dutch culture: their penchant for anything French, for visiting chateaus during the summertime to stand in line to see “twelve sweltering hot rooms with old poster beds and tub chairs,” for bringing “all their groceries from Holland in their trailers” and for not spending a cent in local shops, along with a “tendency to shit in their pants at the mere threat of real violence.” At times humorous but more often mean-spirited, the reader quickly realizes there is something seriously wrong with Paul, who is telling the story.
The couples have agreed to meet for dinner to talk about a serious situation that has to do with their children. Each couple has a 15-year old son who together committed an unspeakable act.. Over dinner, the couples must decide how to handle the situation. Originally written in Dutch and translated into English, I was relieved to read about parenting in another culture because all too often the media and publishers focus an extraordinary amount of attention on America’s wayward youth and the indulgent or hapless American parenting methods. That the story takes place in Amsterdam, one of the most tolerant cities in the world creates an irony of sorts.
Parenting methods differ from culture to culture but the parental urge to protect a child is common among all cultures. As one parent points out “there is no doubt the teenage children did something wrong but to what degree?” Was the act an accident or an unfortunate series of events and should the boys be held accountable for an incident that will have a major impact on their lives, on their futures? The reader knows the answers to all these questions but the story is more about the parents than the kids and all is not what it seems. Characters that initially seem more like background props emerge as puppeteers while those that appear to be leaders are really followers in a story that shows how far people will go to protect a child.
It’s like a pistol in a stage play: when someone waves a pistol during the first act, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That’s the law of drama.